The Roots of Paedophilia
October 9, 2006
Paedophiles are attracted to prepubescent children and act on their sexual fantasies. It is a startling fact that the etiology of this paraphilia (the need for an extreme or dangerous stimulus such as a sadistic or masochistic practice in order to achieve sexual arousal or orgasm) is unknown. Paedophiles come from all walks of life and have no common socio-economic background. The vast majority of paedophiles are also drawn to adults of the opposite sex (are heterosexuals).
Only a few belong to the Exclusive Type - the ones who are tempted solely by childs. Nine tenths of all paedophiles are male. They are fascinated by preteen females, teenage males, or (more rarely) both.
Moreover, at least one fifth (and probably more) of the population have paedophiliac fantasies. The prevalence of child pornography and child prostitution prove it. Paedophiles start out as "normal" people and are profoundly shocked and distressed to discover their illicit sexual preference for the prepubertal. The process and mechanisms of transition from socially acceptable sexuality to much-condemned (and criminal) paedophilia are still largely mysterious.
Paedophiles seem to have narcissistic and antisocial (psychopathic) traits. They lack empathy for their victims and express no remorse for their actions. They are in denial and, being pathological confabulators, they rationalize their transgressions, claiming that the children were merely being educated for their own good and, anyhow, derived great pleasure from it.
The paedophile’s ego-syntony (in ego psychology, used to describe behaviour that does not conflict with somebody's basic attitudes and beliefs and, therefore, is not anxiety-provoking) rests on his alloplastic (intended to bring about a change in a patient's mental condition through changing his or her external circumstances) defences. He generally tends to blame others (or the world or the "system") for his misfortunes, failures, and deficiencies. Paedophiles frequently accuse their victims of acting promiscuously, of "coming on to them", of actively tempting, provoking, and luring (or even trapping) them.
The paedophile - similar to the autistic patient - misinterprets the child's body language and inter-personal cues. His social communication skills are impaired and he fails to adjust information gained to the surrounding circumstances (for instance, to the child's age and maturity).
Coupled with his lack of empathy, this recurrent inability to truly comprehend others causes the paedophile to objectify the targets of his lasciviousness. Paedophilia is, in essence, auto-erotic. The paedophile uses children's bodies to masturbate with. Hence the success of the Internet among paedophiles: it offers disembodied, anonymous, masturbatory sex. Children in cyberspace are mere representations - often nothing more than erotic photos and screen names.
It is crucial to realize that paedophiles are not enticed by the children themselves, by their bodies, or by their budding and nubile sexuality (remember Nabokov's Lolita?). Rather, paedophiles are drawn to what children symbolize, to what preadolescents stand for and represent.
To the paedophile...
I. Sex with children is "free" and "daring"
Sex with subteens implies freedom of action with impunity. It enhances the paedophile’s magical sense of omnipotence and immunity. By defying the authority of the state and the edicts of his culture and society, the paedophile experiences an adrenaline rush to which he gradually becomes addicted. Illicit sex becomes the outlet for his urgent need to live dangerously and recklessly.
The paedophile is on a quest to reassert control over his life. Studies have consistently shown that paedophilia is associated with anomic states (war, famine, epidemics) and with major life crises (failure, relocation, infidelity of spouse, separation, divorce, unemployment, bankruptcy, illness, death of the offender's nearest and dearest).
It is likely - though hitherto unsubstantiated by research - that the typical paedophile is depressive and with a borderline personality (low organization and fuzzy personal boundaries). Paedophiles are reckless and emotionally labile (readily or frequently undergoing chemical or physical change). The paedophile’s sense of self-worth is volatile and dysregulated. He is likely to suffer from abandonment anxiety and be a co-dependent or counterdependent.
Paradoxically, it is by seemingly losing control in one aspect of his life (sex) that the paedophile re-acquires a sense of mastery. The same mechanism is at work in the development of eating disorders. An inhibitory deficit is somehow magically perceived as omnipotence.
II. Sex with children is corrupt and decadent
The paedophile makes frequent (though unconscious) use of projection and projective identification in his relationships with children. He makes his victims treat him the way he views himself - or attributes to them traits and behaviours that are truly his.
The paedophile is aware of society's view of his actions as vile, corrupt, forbidden, evil, and decadent (especially if the paedophiliac act involves incest). He derives pleasure from the sleazy nature of his pursuits because it tends to sustain his view of himself as "bad", "a failure", "deserving of punishment", and "guilty".
In extreme (mercifully uncommon) cases, the paedophile projects these torturous feelings and self-perceptions onto his victims. The children defiled and abused by his sexual attentions thus become "rotten", "bad objects", guilty and punishable. This leads to sexual sadism, lust rape, and snuff murders.
III. Sex with children is a re-enactment of a painful past
Many paedophile truly bond with their prey. To them, children are the reification (to think of or treat something abstract as if it existed as a real and tangible object) of innocence, genuineness, trust, and faithfulness - qualities that the paedophile wishes to nostalgically recapture.
The relationship with the child provides the paedophile with a "safe passage" to his own, repressed and fearful, inner child. Through his victim, the paedophile gains access to his suppressed and thwarted emotions. It is a fantasy-like second chance to re-enact his childhood, this time benignly. The paedophile’s dream to make peace with his past comes true transforming the interaction with the child to an exercise in wish fulfilment.
IV. Sex with children is a shared psychosis
The paedophile treats "his" chosen child as an object, an extension of himself, devoid of a separate existence and denuded of distinct needs. He finds the child's submissiveness and gullibility gratifying. He frowns on any sign of personal autonomy and regards it as a threat. By intimidating, cajoling, charming, and making false promises, the abuser isolates his prey from his family, school, peers, and from the rest of society and, thus, makes the child's dependence on him total.
To the paedophile, the child is a "transitional object" - a training ground on which to exercise his adult relationship skills. The paedophile erroneously feels that the child will never betray and abandon him, therefore guaranteeing "object constancy".
The paedophile – stealthily but unfailingly – exploits the vulnerabilities in the psychological makeup of his victim. The child may have low self-esteem, a fluctuating sense of self-worth, primitive defence mechanisms, phobias, mental health problems, a disability, a history of failure, bad relations with parents, siblings, teachers, or peers, or a tendency to blame herself, or to feel inadequate (autoplastic neurosis). The child may come from an abusive family or environment – which conditioned her or him to expect abuse as inevitable and "normal". In extreme and rare cases – the victim is a masochist, possessed of an urge to seek ill-treatment and pain.
The paedophile is the guru at the centre of a cult. Like other gurus, he demands complete obedience from his "partner". He feels entitled to adulation and special treatment by his child-mate. He punishes the wayward and the straying lambs. He enforces discipline.
The child finds himself in a twilight zone. The paedophile imposes on him a shared psychosis, replete with persecutory delusions, "enemies", mythical narratives, and apocalyptic scenarios if he is flouted. The child is rendered the joint guardian of a horrible secret.
The paedophile’s control is based on ambiguity, unpredictability, fuzziness, and ambient abuse. His ever-shifting whims exclusively define right versus wrong, desirable and unwanted, what is to be pursued and what to be avoided. He alone determines rights and obligations and alters them at will.
The typical paedophile is a micro-manager. He exerts control over the minutest details and behaviours. He punishes severely and abuses withholders of information and those who fail to conform to his wishes and goals.
The paedophile does not respect the boundaries and privacy of the (often reluctant and terrified) child. He ignores his or her wishes and treats children as objects or instruments of gratification. He seeks to control both situations and people compulsively.
The paedophile acts in a patronizing and condescending manner and criticizes often. He alternates between emphasizing the minutest faults (devalues) and exaggerating the looks, talents, traits, and skills (idealizes) of the child. He is wildly unrealistic in his expectations – which legitimizes his subsequent abusive conduct.
Narcissistic paedophiles claim to be infallible, superior, talented, skilful, omnipotent, and omniscient. They often lie and confabulate to support these unfounded claims and to justify their actions. Most paedophiles suffer from cognitive deficits and reinterpret reality to fit their fantasies.
In extreme cases, the paedophile feels above the law – any kind of law. This grandiose and haughty conviction leads to criminal acts, incestuous or polygamous relationships, and recurrent friction with the authorities.
V. The paedophile regards sex with children as an ego-booster
Subteen children are, by definition, "inferior". They are physically weaker, dependent on others for the fulfilment of many of their needs, cognitively and emotionally immature, and easily manipulated. Their fund of knowledge is limited and their skills restricted. His relationships with children buttress the paedophile’s twin grandiose delusions of omnipotence and omniscience. Compared to his victims, the paedophiles is always the stronger, the wiser, the most skilful and well-informed.
VI. Sex with children guarantees companionship
Inevitably, the paedophile considers his child-victims to be his best friends and companions. Paedophiles are lonely, erotomanic (Excessive sexual desire), people.
The paedophile believes that he is in love with (or simply loves) the child. Sex is merely one way to communicate his affection and caring. But there are other venues.
To show his keen interest, the common paedophile keeps calling the child, dropping by, writing e-mails, giving gifts, providing services, doing unsolicited errands "on the child's behalf", getting into relationships with the preteen's parents, friends, teachers, and peers, and, in general, making himself available (stalking) at all times. The paedophile feels free to make legal, financial, and emotional decisions for the child.
The paedophile intrudes on the victim's privacy, disrespects the child's express wishes and personal boundaries and ignores his or her emotions, needs, and preferences. To the paedophile, "love" means enmeshment and clinging coupled with an overpowering separation anxiety (fear of being abandoned).
Moreover, no amount of denials, chastising, threats, and even outright hostile actions convince the erotomaniac that the child is not in love with him. He knows better and will make the world see the light as well. The child and his guardians are simply unaware of what is good for the child. The paedophile determinedly sees it as his or her task to bring life and happiness into the child's dreary and unhappy existence.
Thus, regardless of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the paedophile is convinced that his feelings are reciprocated - in other words, that the child is equally infatuated with him or her. He interprets everything the child does (or refrains from doing) as coded messages confessing to and conveying the child's interest in and eternal devotion to the paedophile and to the "relationship".
Some (by no means all) paedophiles are socially-inapt, awkward, schizoid, and suffer from a host of mood and anxiety disorders. They may also be legitimately involved with the child (e.g., stepfather, former spouse, teacher, gym instructor, sibling) - or with his parents (for instance, a former boyfriend, a one night stand, colleagues or co-workers). They are driven by their all-consuming loneliness and all-pervasive fantasies.
Consequently, paedophiles react badly to any perceived rejection by their victims. They turn on a dime and become dangerously vindictive, out to destroy the source of their mounting frustration. When the "relationship" looks hopeless, some paedophiles violently embark on a spree of self-destruction.
Paedophilia is to some extent a culture-bound syndrome, defined as it is by the chronological age of the child involved. Ephebophilia, for instance - the exclusive sexual infatuation with teenagers - is not considered to be a form of paedophilia (or even paraphilia).
In some cultures, societies and countries (Afghanistan, for instance) the age of consent is as low as 12. The marriageable age in Britain until the end of the nineteenth century was 10. Paedophilia is a common and socially-condoned practice in certain tribal societies and isolated communities (the Island of Pitcairn).
It would, therefore, be wise to redefine paedophilia as an attraction to or sexual acts with prepubescent children or with people of the equivalent mental age (e.g., retarded) in contravention of social, legal, and cultural accepted practices.
Sam Vaknin (samvak.tripod.com) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and other books. He served as a columnist for online publications such as Central Europe Review, Global Politician, PopMatters, United Press International (UPI) (as Senior Business Correspondent), editor in The Open Directory and Suite101 and, until recently, the Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.